Easy Reading for Dark Days

You know what I hate about winter?  Not the cold, not the snow, but the darkness! It makes me crave comfort food and comfort reading. And, while I agree with the need for difficult books and enjoy experimental reading by and large, with the anxiety-inducing news that seems to be lapping (or do I mean nipping?) at our feet constantly, we all need some soothing. So, for the past couple of week, I’ve gone with the undemanding stuff: favourite authors, lots of crime fiction and perhaps even something funny.

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts, transl. Mui Poopoksakul

An unusual collection of surreal stories based around body parts, which I probably wouldn’t have come across without the help of the Asymptote Book Club. A finger shouting out ‘yuck’ at inappropriate times, a teenager who gets to keep the hand of the girl he fancies but makes a mess of it, a young woman who fears that her lack of a real human tail will damage her love prospects… You get the point: these are all such unlikely, borderline absurd scenarios that you cannot help but chuckle as you read them. This Thai author has previously been described as ‘virtually untranslatable’ because of the word games and puns, the way he likes to experiment with language. He certainly presents a picture of contemporary Thailand quite far removed from the tourist sights or even the more sleazy settings of crime fiction.

Louise Penny:Kingdom of the Blind

In the afterword to this latest novel set in the almost mythical community of Three Pines, I was very moved to read that the author had seriously thought she had nothing more to write about Armand Gamache, her much loved detective, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and staunch family man. The reason for that was the death of her husband, who had been a partial inspiration for Gamache. Much to the relief of her vast legions of fans, she did come up with a new story involving all of the colourful characters surrounding Gamache, as well as the extreme harshness of a Canadian winter. The storyline of political shenanigans to discredit Gamache is starting to wear a little thin, I thought, but otherwise it is a fun story of family rivalry, a feud about inheritance, and institutional and individual corruption.

Hanna Jameson: The Last

Such a promising premise for this one: what if nuclear war broke out while you were at a conference in a remote location in the Swiss Alps? What if you find a murder has been committed and that one of the survivors camping out with you in that hotel must have done it? Yet this novel, described inevitably as And Then There Were None meets The Road, really doesn’t live up to that promise. There is very little murder mystery in there, much more of an exploration of the psychology of survivors and the minutiae of their daily lives. There is some fun to be had about the differences of opinions between Europeans and Americans, and the ‘hazing’ of someone whom we might consider a Trump supporter, but every theme appears to be mentioned, gone into briefly, and then dropped. Besides, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the Swiss, with their abundance of obligatory bunkers fully equipped with food and other necessities, will be the ones most likely to survive the apocalypse in comfort. And the author doesn’t take this into account at all!

Tana French: The Witch Elm

Another difficult white cover – is there a trend right now that I hadn’t previously noticed? A standalone by one of the best crime authors currently at work – I could hardly wait to read this one. And yet, it was disappointing. Far too much background  – the story only gets going about halfway through, and even then there is too much dithering. While I normally enjoy French’s slow build-up to horrifying conclusions (Broken Harbour is the perfect example of that), in this case I didn’t feel that the build-up was warranted. And although I normally quite like unlikeable characters, I just couldn’t care about the narrator in this instance.

So in the end, easy reading doesn’t always make for the most satisfying reading. Out of the four, I would say the short story collection, i.e. The most unexpected and experimental one, was the one that pleased me most, even if I didn’t love every story and even though I feel it is disloyal to Louise Penny. Onwards and upwards!